In the 1987 Purim edition of one of Yeshiva University’s student newspapers, readers were encouraged, in a mock advertisement, to purchase a set of trading cards depicting great rabbis of Modern Orthodoxy. “Collect both cards,” read the ad. It was a joke that relied on some communal knowledge, namely, that the Modern Orthodox community could boast maybe two renowned thinkers — the referents were presumably Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, his son-in-law; or Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, then president of YU — whose Torah expertise was on par with their right-wing Orthodox peers.
The faux-marketing punchline lands, as Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff demonstrates in his Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life, because it encapsulates the very tension at the heart of American Orthodoxy. Striving for authenticity in the eyes of fellow Americans, alongside expressions of traditional religious values, constitutes its very essence — thus the production, by the right-wing Orthodox community during the baseball trading card boom days of the 1980’s, of “rabbi cards” depicting the faces of major Jewish rabbis and the “stats” of the organizations they led and the learned tomes they wrote. Eleff, the chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College and associate professor of Jewish history at Touro College, is a gifted storyteller and scholar. In the latest of his volumes documenting Jewish communal life, he offers well-researched reporting, keen historical analysis, and the nuanced views of an insider in presenting various ways — tragic, humorous, and theological — that Orthodox Jews have lived in the United States. As he details, the popularity of spelling bees led to the emergence of “brachot bees,” wherein yeshiva students competed over which blessings to say over certain Jewish foods. Lego-like toys were manufactured in the more “kosher” form of “Binyan Blocks,” depicting synagogue scenes and Jewish holidays.
As Eleff shows, the struggle to feel fealty to the faith of Abraham and Moses while fitting in societal norms has never been simple or linear. Phenomena such as women’s prayer groups and mixed-gender dances among college-age youth have risen and fallen. In some communities, Modern Orthodox day schools closed under pressure from more right-wing alternatives. Bat mitzvahs, originating in the Reform movement, became acceptable expressions of Orthodoxy. And the institutional support behind women’s Talmud learning waxed, waned, and recently waxed again.
Of interest to anyone within and beyond the Jewish community intrigued by the dynamic tension between faith communities and their surrounding cultural contexts, Authentically Orthodox is an entertaining, informative, and accessible window into the ever-changing story of lived traditional life.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.